Finding your way of helping others and improving the world (RW39)

Some people are so moved by other people's suffering that they are devoting their whole lives to mitigate other people's suffering. You can find more suffering at every level and whatever you do, there will always be people who have it even worse. Some people say that running for public office or going to the Peace Corps is helping other people. Investment bankers making $1 million a year by initiating some trades will describe their contribution to the world as "helping other people", because they are maintaining the system of credit that enables other people to build houses for people. They see themselves on top of a trickle-down food chain, they are diluting themselves and people question why they would be paid $1 million a year. There are tax revolts all the time, and those tax revolters see themselves as helping other people.

John has a very strong desire to help other people. It is a major motivator for him and for everybody else in his family. They see their role in the world as contributing to betterment of human being. While we all struggle to figure out what our job is, the key seems to be that we are all meant to help people in certain different ways and nobody should be judged if their way of helping people is in politics. You can't lay in bed awake at night wishing you were in Guatemala helping people more directly one on one. It is astonishing that Jimmy Carter has spent as much time as he has been doing actually swinging a hammer, building a house until you realize that he has always been a politician and he does that work in order to popularize it and make it appear doable to people. His involvement alone has expanded Habitat for Humanity and made it seem noble, which has resulted in more houses being built.

But what is John's job? He doesn't know. John cannot differentiate between the nobility of working at a food bank vs the nobility of going to a poor country and actually directly saving three lives a day. He doesn't feel compelled to do either work, because somewhere in his cosmology he doesn't actually regard any one individual human being as being especially important, himself included. Saving individual lives sort of feels like it is rewarding work for someone, but he sees the world in a different light. John doesn't see plagues and disasters as being incompatible with nature, even. If you trace back the idea that those things are bad, you arrive at a human intellectual moment at which we determined that certain life was sacred and other life was not. We don't lament a million dead ants. Some of us lament all the 800 year old trees being cut down to make sawhorses and shitty buildings that get torn down later. Other people don't lament that, but somewhere up the food chain some people start lamenting the death of giraffes. As we move further up the chain, it is against the law to kill human beings, but all that is purely thought technology, it is not inherent or implied by the way the rest of nature works. It presupposes a morality that John still wrestles with what it extends from.

John does not look at Tsunamis or Hurricanes from the standpoint of how they adversely affect his neighbors, for instance. He would never sit and wish that his neighbor's house would be destroyed, although there is one house in his neighborhood that he wishes was destroyed, he sometimes imagines a very localized natural disaster that takes out this one house. He wouldn't wish any ill on anybody, but that doesn't stop him from being excited about it. He chased a Tornado across Ohio one time and was about 45 minutes behind it the entire way. In some way, he was first on the scene of the destruction. It was a big Tornado and you could see its path of scorched earth across the rolling hills of Ohio, not one of those flat planes where you could have seen it from 1000 miles away. It was a stormy day and as John drove along this road he would see this house gone and the house next door standing. He was frantically chasing this Tornado, hoping to get a glimpse of it and hoping being taken up on it (not flown in it, but taken up in the storm of it and being there on the edge of it).

Maybe John is helping people through his podcasts and his music? People frequently don't know how much the stuff that they do makes some kind of difference, even if it is a small difference. As soon as he had reached a certain audience size, it became impossible for John himself to comprehend how far reaching or beneficial the albums he made are to other people, because he is too closely involved in the creative process and too connected to them. He is thinking about the aspects of making the song, but not how the song is affecting someone who ran into it for the first time on Spotify or heard it in a restaurant. Songs and written words have always touched and affected John as well and while he would never say that anything like that had saved his life (because his life was never at risk), it certainly altered his life and proved his life, meaning that he is familiar with that effect.

The question is why John still feels dissatisfaction. Maybe this is inherent in the life of an artist, or maybe it is inherent in the life of all people? There must be some people who make a beautiful thing and then say "my work here is done", but most of the creators he knows continue to create because they don't have that feeling yet. Neil Young made Harvest in 1970 when he was 22 years old. It is still one of his great works, but he didn't rest! John is not confined to music and writing as the only forms of his expression which creates an additional difficulty whenever he encounters dissatisfaction: he doesn't always go back to the guitar. If Neil Young feels like he hasn't done good, he goes back to the guitar because that is his instrument. He started the Bridge School Concert, but it is still a concert. John has a multiplicity of outlets like podcasting or even tweeting and unrolling his tool roll of different tools only increases his dissatisfaction.

There are a lot of people who feel that they were not put into the world to help others, but to survive, to promulgate, and to feed and help their family. John's self-sacrificing ethic that drives him to help other people may be at his own expense. He has a compulsion to public service, but that is certainly not the majority. Most people are not motivated to work against their own interest on behalf of the larger whole. (Dan:) In our society we are not really taught to do that, but we live after the American exceptionalism or the Jacksonian individualism. All of us are special! Why would someone sacrifice their own comfort, success or money to help someone else? Those other people could have the same fortune, luck or experience if they had made better decisions and had tried harder. The only reason they haven't done it is because they are either lazy and didn't put themselves out there enough or because they need to read and study whatever is necessary. Many people believe that they shouldn't sacrifice something that they have earned or that they deserve in order to do something beneficial to someone else. Serving is almost looked down upon in a way.

One of Dan's friends is a sommelier and knows tons about wine. By getting that certification you are really saying that you want to be of service to people and the way you will serve them is by helping them having a better dining experience selecting the right kind of wine. That is basically what sommeliers are doing. There are many careers where the focal point is to serve people in some way, like the whole service industry: it is right in the name! Somehow people say "Well, that sucks for you that you have to be in a job where you have to do things for other people all the time. What an idiot you were that you are stuck helping other people! Bringing food out or cooking! You chose to work in a restaurant where you are cooking for other people, that's a low job!" But really it is not. For Dan it really hit when he had kids and it occurred to him that a big part of his life is going to be of service to his children, until he is not capable of doing that anymore. Part of his job (if he is going to be any good in raising kids) is to provide for them, help them when they have problems, and help them figure out what they want to do in their lives.

You are in service to someone and you realize that there is a certain good aspect to that, but Dan was never specifically taught "do for others". His mom, by the way, was a career teacher in High School and College. She has always been on that level of service in education. It is a thankless job most of the time, and a hard job all of the time and it does not pay very well, but she got a lot out of it, because she knew she was helping people in some way. She was teaching Dan that helping other people is important indirectly by going to work every day. (John:) There is that sense of entitlement that you have earned something, so why should you share it with others? There is the philosophy of doing things only for yourself, because others can do likewise. That is not true! For many reasons, someone else doing the same thing does not mean that they will have the same success. Every single thing you do every day is building on the thing you did before. John applies that idea to himself.

John does not take any ownership over his creations in the sense that he doesn't take a ton of privilege over them or even pride in them. He is here to do these things that are natural for him to do. The sacrifices he makes for doing these things feel like a part of them, not separate from them. He doesn't imbue those sacrifices with any greater nobility. Playing the guitar for hours and hours or scribbling words is a tremendous effort and takes a lot of vitamins, but his life is not as valuable when utilized in other ways. He doesn't look at that expense as anything he needs to be repaid for or that he should be proud of or respected for. Playing the guitar is both his inclination and the thing he was utilized for. That larger focus precludes him from being interested in his own suffering, unless he is sitting and stewing and being a martyr, but when he looks at the world as a whole, his suffering is insignificant. Having said that, John only berates himself because he is insecure about whether or not he is doing a good job, and it validates the work he has done, but he does not enjoy being in the middle of a berate.

As John was driving to work today, he imagined that he had somehow found himself in the territory of the Islamic State and had fallen into their hands. That would normally not happen because he is wily, but if he would fall into their hands and they made him kneel in the dessert and put an AK-47 at the back of his head, the most unlikely scenario would be that the executioner would ask him if he had any last words. Of course they would be videotaping this whole thing. For most of his drive today John was ruminating what his last words would be and how he would convey the love for his daughter, that she was his last thought, and that he was not sad and burdened by the loss of his own life. He also needed to say something in the order of "God Bless the USA" and "Go fuck yourself!" and then "Boom!" Maybe this video-tape would do as much good in the world as all the art that he would make for the rest of his life. That video-tape replayed a thousand times, played for his daughter as the last thing he said wouldn't be as good as him sticking around and being her father, but it wouldn't be awful. It would be pretty cool! When she will be 18 or 24 and a bunch of people will ask her about her father, she would show them the video that everybody had already seen many times and everybody would be impressed that this had been her dad.

John regrets that he has but one life to give for his country. Ultimately he sees his job as helping to relieve the burden somewhat, so that others may have an easier time. For whatever reason, the gifts he was given in storytelling and whatnot are best broadcast rather than applied one-on-one.

The purpose of the church in modern days (RL241)

Merlin and John talk about an article called "Breaking Faith".

People from both sides of the political spectrum are going to church less. Radical reactionary conservatism and racism was broadly associated with evangelicalism and it was expected that fewer and fewer people going to church would then mean a more progressive society, because we naively thought that leaving the church would mean we would become more involved. Instead, people are leaving the church and are just descending into a miasma of their worst impulses. It turns out that conservatives who still go to church - seeking Christian values - tend to be more accepting to different races and less politically radical. 75% of Trump voters consider themselves to be Christians, but do not go to church. Those who did go to church voted for Ted Cruz. On the left, the church goers voted for Hillary, the non-church-goers voted for Bernie Sanders. This means, you leave the church and you head to the outside and get more extreme, not less.

The idea that the church was the source of intolerance was a very popular notion, but turned out to be a giant sampling error. Merlin knows so many faithful, service-oriented humans, and it is a pity that they get tarred with that same brush. The idea was that secularism was the goal, that we were aspiring to a world dominated by reason produced by secular people and that reason inevitably would produce altruistic action. If you believe in an revengeful god and the afterlife, then the desire and rationale for being good is self-evident. If you are in a rational and scientific-based life, then it is also self-evident, but much more difficult to describe in one sentence. Surprisingly we are at a juncture now. John was educated to believe, longing for the days when most Americans went to church and were good to each other, because they had a weekly reminder to be kind, grateful, to sing, to put on a suit, gather together in the big house, and a lot of secondary effects. How is that replaceable? They were less likely to be racist, because they understand that we are all brothers in Christ.

Merlin notes that there are a lot of churches in his neighborhood, for example a big, giant, purple lesbian church. Everybody is welcome and they are very vocal and very religious. There are even enough baptist Chinese people in the area to have several churches. Then there are lots of other ways to having the equivalent of church once a week, like AA, or bowling. Merlin sorely misses the community aspect of going to church. Church wasn't optional, John says, all that social pressure that we are now liberated from was important. There are ads "the day we could wear our fleece pajamas to work was a day of liberation" and people are wearing flip-flops on airplanes, but there is a moiré of what we once called a polite society. Everybody in town was expected to go to church, not by higher authority, but by their neighbors. You didn't pick your church due to affinity or because it seemed fun, but because you were expected to. Somehow in the second half of the 20th century we got the idea that we have to be released from any and all externally imposed expectation, so we can be self-determining. In the first half of the century that idea didn't even exist. The freedom we are looking for, the highest good for us is to all is to find exactly whet we personally want. We all tailor our RSS feed to show the news we want, we all have our own playlist and this is just producing more fury at one another, less understanding and less love, not more, which is a shock to us all. We expected that universal education and the freedom to make art would produce an enlightened society, but what happens is the opposite.

After you go to AA for a little while or some other kind of recovery program that's based on the same notion, you feel this euphoria of enlightenment. There is a period where you become really evangelical and you wish that everyone in the world would have had such an awful problem as being an addict so they would be forced to come to this place of understanding. Enlightenment requires seeking, like going to a different church does! But AA is not that kind of place, because you were not looking for a gathering of like-minded souls, but you tried to get high until your life came apart. You are not there by choice, you are not forced to go there by the courts, but because you had a heart attack. You look around and think that these people are the worst in the world, but you have to be there. That's when the religious aspect of it becomes very profound. There is a moment when you think "I wish everybody would have fallen as far as I fell, because the only way you can feel like I do now and have this insight is to have gotten to that place and have bottomed".

Don't covet! And people increasingly focusing on the wrong details (RW64)

Religions are very adamant about generosity. The positive effect of religion on the development of humanity has always been that religion tries to counter our worst impulses. Religion has all these tenets saying "Give on to others", "Don't murder", or "Don't covet". The reason that religions need to say those things is that we have the opposite impulse. In our modern life we have done away with a lot of the basic religious ideas, but we haven't replaced them with a secular version of "Don't covet". There are lot of hippy-dippy versions of "Don't covet", but there is no universally accepted notion that the idea of "Don't covet" did not come from God, but it is generally a good idea!

Coveting does awful things to you: It creates awful structures in the world, it makes you a bad friend, and it makes you a bad parent. Covetousness is an ugly animal behavior and we shouldn't need God to tell us "Don't covet"! Still, it is hard to remember and religion is a way to sit on a hard stool every Sunday and listen to somebody drilling it into your head: "Don't covet, don't steal, don't…" and more basic ideas that are counter to our nature. We have all this technology now, all this insulation against the appearance of being animals: We don't walk around covered in dirt and sweat and blood, and we are so impressed by how civilized we are, but that insulation from appearing to be gross has caused us to be in this state where we have forgotten not to covet, not to steal, and not to break the very basic rules.

Years ago, John worked as a security person and his job was to watch the back door. People were loading in and out and he was stationed there. He got an hamburger on every shift and he was sitting there eating his hamburger when the owner of the store saw him there eating while watching the back door. He was screaming at John for not having clocked out while eating his shift meal although he was doing the job, watching the back door, but he made him go to clock out for the 15 minutes to eat the hamburger and clock back in, while he was making $6 an hour. What did the owner win? A dollar? And what did he lose? John's loyalty forever! The energy of screaming at John! The respect of everybody standing around and watching him! But to the owner, it was necessary to guard against theft and the kind of small graft that sneaks into a place like that where people say "Oh well, I'm going to put an extra Maraschino cherry into my Shirley Temple because I work here", "I'm going to take an extra shift drink" or "I'm going to sneak an extra this or that." Yeah, you can lose a ton of money at your business if your staff are giving away a lot of money to their friends all afternoon, or if they are straight out taking money out of the Till, but what business are you losing if your employees take an extra Maraschino cherry, or if they have a shift meal while they are on the clock? You are losing nothing! What amount of money is Verizon losing if they are leaving me out of my contract two months early? They are losing nothing, but it would not be considered good business, as though it is a sacred calling and a religion in and of itself. The better you are at business, the less good you have to be to yourself and to other people.

Every time you get on an airplane and they are calling the five different levels of privilege, it's like the ultimate recapitulation of a caste system that we are so proud of having eliminated in South Africa, the United States, or India, where it is now so civilized that we are calling it a classless society. Artificial privileges scratch an itch for us. John is having a larger and larger feeling of contraction, not to the extend of being a hermit, but disconnecting from the pollution that is in our culture right now, the pollution that's in the greedy smallness driving all our transactions. Not political, but emotional and social, both on a larger scale as well as inter-personal.

Calvinism (RW79)

Our Judeo-Christian America still has that calvinist sense that if you are sick or hurt or poor or in any way disabled by circumstances of life, it is because you deserve it. When you are young and healthy and look out at the future, you see people with disadvantages across a whole spectrum and your built-in callousness of youth makes you think that those people must have done something. Maybe they had stared into the sun, or they had not taken care of themselves. It is not because of aging, but it is because of this thing or failing to do this thing. For whatever reason, not being affected by the same disadvantage must be your own virtue. The idea of Calvinism is that good works do not get you into heaven because God already knows in beforehand who gets into heaven and who doesn't. He must know, because he is omniscient and all your kowtow and all your good work will not change anything. However, if you are one of the elect, it is presumed that you would behave in a manner that befitted an elect, which means that you are naturally good. Calvinism puts this kind of reverse pressure on people to behave in accordance with the Christian idea of social good in order to impress the people around them that they are elect. On the other hand, if you clearly are a bad kid and not an elect, then you could reasonably say that you are not going to heaven, so anyway: Rumspringa!

In America this is a huge element in our collective problem of not seeing ourselves as a unified group of people who could lift one another up to build a better society. We think that misfortune is deserved and somehow a product of your own lazyness or your own health problems or your criminality that came as a result of bad parenting. Those are ideas that had been popular in the 1950:s and have since been discredited. For example, if your mother didn't give you enough attention as a kid, you became a homosexual because you craved her love, or if you were bottle-fed instead of breast-fed you would became a desperate crack junkie because the pipe is like a nipple. There are a million things that try to put the onus on the individual and thereby deny them the collective sympathy of their fellows. It is the underlying justification for not providing welfare to the poor, to not providing free health care to the people, or for not providing for other people at all because they all deserve it! It is very hard for people to realize that they think this way, which is why all the states in the US that are the most opposed to welfare in general are also the states in which the most people actually receive welfare.

Interestingly this situation also played out in the catastrophic rains down in Texas in September of 2017. The general liberal mentality is to always try to behave collectively and to help people. Liberals do believe in collective action and all the liberal organizations were like "Help the people of Houston!" or "Help the dogs! There are so many dogs down there that are being swept out to sea!". At the same time there was this feeling of Schadenfreude because - while the center of Houston is a liberal oasis - the rest of the town is a sprawling metropolis of deeply conservative people who all voted against public services and who perceive government to be their enemy. Famously, Ted Cruz voted against federal relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, but now is desperately clambering for federal relief for the people of his own state. The Schadenfreude results from a metropolis based on the oil business, filled with millions of people who deny climate change, being drowned by a massive storm. The feeling of Calvinist righteousness tells us that they deserve it!

This is a little bit of a setback. For someone who's natural instinct is to rush into aid people in need, this is a terrible feeling to have. It is a very American threat! Many other places in the world like Australia or New Zealand have a national culture of independent free-spiritedness and see themselves as frontier-people. Obviously there is a lot of Calvinism in European people, like the Dutch and Swiss and speckled pats of Germany and Sweden, but in the United States it got combined with a Scotch-Irish drive for independence and created this culture of lack of sympathy for one another. It inhabits each of us so much so that John looks at his own crumbling self and all he can do is have no sympathy for himself. He looks at his long-term injuries and says "well, you shouldn't have X and you shouldn't have Y and now look at you! This whole time you should have been one with God and now you are sorry.” - "Jesus! Have a little sympathy for yourself and go a little easier on yourself, dad!”

The age-old divide between the STEM and the liberal arts (RW65)

How does a science person interact with somebody who studies books? There is a lot of consternation between those two worlds. The science people feel that they are the real intellects and word people are just the loosey gooseys, while the loosey gooseys feel like they are the ones using their brains while the science people are just automatons and they are just memorizing stuff. The clash has been there for millennia, but is worse now than before, because the science path is seen as the path to wealth, while nobody cares about story tellers. There has never been money in being a literature major, but there used to be fame, and there is very little fame there now either.

There are a probably lot of listeners to John's podcasts who fall on one side or the other of this great moraine. John does a lot of teasing of science and computer people, a group that normally does not like very much being teased at, and that is part of why. John hopes to be somebody who can bridge that divide, because he likes to talk about science as a lay person. He imagines his audience to be an unusual group of people on either side, all predisposed to wanna bridge that gap. His shows aren't tech podcasts, but there are a lot of listeners from tech who found their way to John through Dan or Merlin. Some come directly to John through his art and musical career. Listeners don't come here to hear comedy jokes, but they only stick around because they find something interesting that is not just joshing. Adam Savage, who John had recently interviewed, also has a desire to bridge that gap. His his partner on MythBusters was a strict science guy with no interest in story telling or interacting with his audience, while Adam was the one injecting a story into the show, obviously also believing in science. Science fiction is obviously one of the first things to close that gap.

We really need to amend the schism that existed for the last 40 years. Wired Magazine or Discover Magazine are examples of publications telling stories about science and making it available to the lay people. We all like scientists in movies, but science is under siege by popular culture. There is a ground swell of contempt for scientific conclusions and a complete misunderstanding in how the scientific method works. The scientific method is attempting to eradicate bias or at least be aware of it. In popular culture scientists are now one side of an argument burning their bridges, because they are making their own argument to themselves about what their result is going to be. Throughout history there were dark ages and John trembles that we are at the dawn of one.

Expertise and intelligence (RL249)

In the music recording business, the more people from the head office will come down to your recording studio, the more they will destroy what you are doing. It is all they can do! To mitigate that there are little sections on mixing boards all over the world that are disconnected from the mix and when someone from the label comes and wants to contribute, a really good producer will make some suggestions, put his hands on some knobs and tell the A&R guy to make his minor adjustments on those blank knobs while the mix is going by. It really sweetens up the sound! Hollywood surely needs to adapt this kind of technique. A lot of times people think that they are influencing the movie while in reality they are not. John would of course just tell them to get the fuck out of here, but you need to give them an input sink to take their input without unintentionally doing something destructive, while you don't want to encourage them to come back either.

In an undertaking as massive as making a Hollywood movie, how do you maintain the perspective of a child? How do you keep simplicity? How do you know if your movie really makes the audience laugh? Expertise can be the enemy! All of our teachers have pursued an education trajectory in their own education. All of our designers have exclusively pursued designing. We have eliminated the sense that the world needs people who are more broadly educated. Especially while making a film there should be someone who doesn't know anything about movie making, someone who hasn't read the book and who you just run things by, like running things by your dad. But how do you go into a business situation and make a case for the input of someone who isn't an expert? There are so many levels to expertise. One part of expertise is the ability to say that you don't know about something. The other end of the spectrum, when you have made tremendous accomplishments and are already a hero of your craft, you can be a character that sits in the back of the room with sunglasses on, maybe asleep, maybe not, while the whole thing goes by, thinking that it is all going well and doesn't need your intervention. You can get away with it becasue you are the master. Quincy Jones presumably does not jump out of his chair and moves the SM57 on the snare by 1,5 inches. He is the producer, not the audio engineer. Carole King is not going to be down in the weeds when something is going well.

But then there is this vast majority of people in the middle of their profession, people gunning for their job against a huge competition. They are at a stage in their career where people are looking out for the next genius and there has to be so much pressure on them to appear like they are contributing. It has to be very hard for someone in the middle of their creative career to just lean back and admit that something is going well and they don't need to mess with it. This accounts for the giant jumble of garbage, the gyre of plastic that is rotating around the Pacific that we call our mainstream culture. We need "creatives" (John was apalled that he just used that word!) who from a very young age have the confidence to be sparing throughout their career. Prince was a teenager from Minneapolis who went to open mics and who was in High School bands. He didn't just fall from the sky, but he practiced his guitar on his bed and nobody saw him coming. From the beginning he had the confidence to be Prince. There aren't seven Prince albums that came out while he was trying to figure it out. He hit the ground pretty much running. John was listening to Little Red Corvette by Prince yesterday and noticed the pre-echo when he sings "On the verge of being obscene". Prince surely didn't invent it, but it is so beautiful. It was discovered that when the tape reel is being wound back, there can be a little bleed on the tape where you get this pre-delay and the sound ghosts into the track. In Prince's case it was not bleed, but an intentional thing.

People who don't second-guess themselves are the ones who drive things forward, like Neil Young to an extend. He is always pot-committed! There is footage of him on television from a time between After The Gold Rush and Harvest where he is 22 years old, sitting on a chair solo with long hair and says "This is a new one i wrote, it is called Old Man and it is about a guy who lives on my farm". He plays it on the acoustic guitar and it is already a complete work. It is not like he is still working on it, but it is all there although that record is not out yet. There is no banjo part and no backing vocals, but it doesn't matter. It is actually phenomenal! His parts are simple and easy to play, but there it is: a masterpiece. He is just that young Canadian with dirt in his hair and his bowl haircut, driving around Hollywood in a Cadillac hearse. Today at 75 years old, Neil Young is at the other far end of the spectrum. The fact he has never answered to anybody and doesn't have to answer to anybody is now a slight deficit on him, because if he decided he was going to wear clown shoes today, everybody would find it amazing.

We on the other hand, the giant pile in the middle, are trying to prove that we are working. John put every possible instrument onto The Long Winters records. When he came up with a shaker part, he wanted it on there. He didn't ask "What does this track need? A harpsichord!", but "What does this track not have?" There are a lot of melodies going on that are all very satisfying and fun to listen to on headphones, but 5 melodies are not 5 times better than 1 great melody.

Intelligence (RL249)

Intelligence is nowadays seen as a multifaceted thing. There is emotinal intelligence (before that, we only had street-smart), mathematical intelligence and all different kinds of intelligence. If you observe people in your life who make their skill seem incredibly easy, they seem incredibly confident in what they are doing. It might feel like magic to you that somebody is capable of that and they probably have an X kind of intelligence that you lack. John always thinks of them as smarter. How is Joss Whedon capable of all this? He has to be smarter somehow!

John recently met Tavi Gevinson who stands out as a very smart person. Over time, John had met a lot of very accomplished people, but it is not always their smartness that stands out. John Hodgman is smart, Maria Semple is smart, but they are not unnaturally smart to a point where their accomplishment can be attributed to their smartness. Tavi is young and she can't possibly have the experience of an older person. She is clearly very smart, but there is something else: this quality of self-posession, just following her own star, but without a lot of Jim Morrison trappings. When something comes onto their desk, they have the ability to say that this thing is not what they are doing! John didn't have that. He spent however many daydream hours and burned a lot of time imagining he would do Shakespeare.

Collaboration (RL249)

In June of 2017, John was embarking on a new thing in multiple different venues where he is intentionally collaborating. He keeps forgetting that this is a good thing, because he usually wants is to be left alone and finds collaboration a hard thing to do, which it is. That track he sent to Aimee that ended up on her record wasn't exactly a collaboration. There was no back and forth, but he just sent it to her, she added her parts and completed it. He did have the feeling that he had to surrender it and it became an Aimee Mann song. She wrote the bridge. She did great work. She made it hers! It wasn't easy, because John wants to be the one who does everything. Don't be prescious! Make your thing and hand it off! Everything is a collaboration when you release it to the world, because they will add their 2 cents. John is now collaborating with two different people more broadly and - boy! - is it hard! The other person will come back and say he will call it "Conneticut" and put whipped cream on it, which might not at all be what John had in mind. So far, they are doing something John wouldn't do otherwise and John tries every day to tell himself he can't do this by himself. You have to live in the world!

Like John, Merlin wants to be left alone, but he sees it as beneficial to be pushed into situations with other people, whether it is encouraging his daughter to get over her shyness and order her own food, or reaching out to a person to do a podcast episode with them. It is not his natural impulse at all and given the varying intelligences of other people, he looks at somebody and admires them and is stunned by the way they are good at their job because they have done it a lot and because they understand that people are part of the process.

Merlin reached out to John and explained to him what the internet was and that there were other people at the other side of the Internet. He explained some of the reasons why a band would want to be on the Internet. Then Merlin wanted to do a Podcast and explained patiently what that was. Now they have been doing this for 40 years (since September 2011) and there have been times when this Podcast was the thing that kept John in the world. It was the one thing he was doing that was collaborative and interactive and outside of himself, dependent on someone else not just doing work, but being into it, bringing not just their participation, but the love of doing it enough to do it. John never would have thought that. Merlin and John knew a lot of people 10 years ago that they still know, but don't know very well anymore. They knew those people as well as they knew each other then, but now Merlin and John know each other because they do this. As depressing as it sounds, podcasting is an opportunity for Merlin to have regular meetings with his friends. Maybe they should start a band? Merlin's dad has a barn, John's dad has a kiln and a set of tools. Who gets to play the chainsaw? John's job is will be setting off one stick of dynamite every 14 days and then skulk around the corner.

John has a friend in Seattle making a TV show that will feature Julia Roberts. Her name is Maria Semple, the author of "Where'd you go, Bernadette". In her new TV show she will be the head writer and the showrunner. She has compiled a writing staff from the ranks, people with credits who wrote for Grace and Frankie or My Own Private Idahoe. Normally, a person in her position will have her team of writers and while everybody contributes to the whole, she would put her name on it in the end while the others would just be paid to do the work. She is a successful person and does not need to own all the scripts, but of course she will have the final edit. One of the writers is a very young gal, a fresh out of college playwright who has not worked in television before and Maria says she knows exactly what to do in the writing room. She will not say anything until there is a time for her to say something and when she does say something, it is brilliant. Maria is giving her a script, too! She earned it by knowing her job and by being consistently good and patient. Those people are working their butts off, and even though they can be lucky to be here, they should not just have to pay-to-play. John is getting some lessons about collaboration from this. It is heavy to watch how much work has to go into it and in order to make it work, you have to just let people do their job.

Buddhist philosophy (RW73)

The kind of buddhist meditation Dan learned is called "Vipassana", or "insight meditation", which is very different from zen-meditation. There is a method to it, a fairly disciplined thing. It can be open, but there is a practice how to do it. It is possible to achieve similar results in different ways and it sounds like that was what John did while he was on The Big Walk, but in some ways, John's way was reinforcing his inner conversation, whereas in the goal with meditation would be to eliminate it if possible, not in a harsh or cruel way to blow it up or squash it down, but letting it go and releasing it until you don't have to do it anymore. It does not stay gone, but it stops during the meditation and during parts of the rest of the day. When you have a regular practice of doing it, you get to see the way that Buddha described it. Buddha is using the term "heap" for "mental processes" and "thinking". There are five aggregates that constitute your mental and physical existence:

  • Form,
  • sensations,
  • perceptions,
  • mental formations and
  • consciousness.

These are things that are happening at all times. The concept of "not-self", anatta that goes along with John's trifecta of Past/Present/Future John is that there isn't a "self", or "one person", but there is only a temporary grouping of those aggregates, none of which are the complete "you". All of these things are without substance and don't create anything tangible, but are temporary, so you suffer when you cling to those things (suffering is what Buddhism is all about) or identify with those things. Your mental and physical existence is all a combination of these heaps or aggregates. If you cling to them, you feel suffering, because they are temporary and will go away. If you feel good right now and don't want it to end, you suffer. If you don't feel good and want it to end, you suffer. When John had all those voices while he was walking and he had lost the notion that he was himself, that is a Buddhist notion.

We have these notions and thought of who we are and what we are as a self and the things we do and the things we like or don't like, and our habits, but really those are just collections of mental processes that lead us down the path into the notion that we are a person, but really we are not. A car is not really a thing, but it is a whole combination of things that are sometimes working together and sometimes not. The engine is made out of a bunch of smaller parts, there are gears that turn the wheels. None of the parts themselves are the car, but those are just those things that are connected temporarily with one another. The mental process in the Buddhist perspective is very similar. Those five aggregates create and completely explain a sentient human's physical and mental existence. That is the Buddhist take on it. When you meditate long enough and follow along, these things start to become visible to you in an interesting way that it is possible to become aware of these things happening. A core Buddhist philosophy is that there isn't a "self", but it is those different things happening at one time that gives the impression of a "self".

Tribalism and the win of the emotional side over the intellectual side (BW205)

Modern humans have been around for 50.000 years. We spent most of our time on Earth figuring out how to live in a hut with our extended family group and we learned and inhabited a set of traits related to that. We have had electricity for just about 90 years and while we would grab our spear to defend our tribe when we heard a distant echo in the past, we are now trying to navigate the world with all its racial poles. Then some over-voice comes in to tell you that you are an idiot because there is no tribe and there is no ”You”. You put your spear down and you feel underused because your skills are underutilized. To compensate for that we are attaching tremendous powers to dumb things. Our ability to pick up a stick and defend our family is being colonized by companies, because our families don’t need defending, so why don’t we pick up this virtual stick and defend their brand? They will give us something to defend!

Once you identify those kind of primitive emotions in yourself, you want to transcend them, but Buddhism only became a fashion in America in living memory. We should maybe try and channel those primitive emotions in positive ways, but John doesn’t see any ability to use his mind to trump his emotional life. His emotional life is very primitive! All of our emotional lives are primitive and are structured to deal with a tribal world full of threat. John’s intellectual life can see that this is true, but all his attempts to impose intellectual ideas on his emotional life have been fruitless. While he was trying to tame that primitivism in him, he is still unclear how to channel it. Many problems of our culture and our world, even in those small cultures we live in, are easy to understand if you realize that people are having a reaction like they are being attacked by a lion. They are out of control because their emotional life is misperceiving a threat and is misgauging their reaction. This isn’t even a flaw in them, but we evolved to live in a very different world than the one we are currently living in.

John doesn’t know how to help himself in order to make sense of those two competing narratives. He finds himself in this situation on an hourly basis. Intellectually he knows that there is no threat but emotionally he is very upset. This is a humorous boondoggle which would make a very funny article that he probably will never write. As he is screaming, clenching and fighting between fury and shame, there is a little voice on top of everything saying that this really isn’t anything and it doesn’t matter. It sounds like a Nanny trying to comfort an Orangutan or like Mary Poppins trying to explain something to a water buffalo. John is not able to impose a kind of Namaste on it and in a lot of cases all he can do is restrain himself until his emotion ebbs and the reasonable voices come back. Until then this emotion is as real as anything in the world.

John has tremendous sympathy for people who have less ability to govern their feelings when it comes to all the stuff that happens on the Internet. He spent a lot of time in the American South and had lots of dinners with nice people whom he found to be the soul of graciousness - deeply human people who would still scream at him on the Internet and he would scream back at them. Wherever he traveled, people with completely opposing views could sit down, be normal human beings with each other, and have a very human and wonderful experience. We are invested in many dividing lines like racism and sexism right now. You can take the two most racist people in the world with different views, put them together and ask them if they want to get some burgers and their humanity will win out, but on the Internet, some problems look unsolvable and institutional. Our cops are poorly trained, because they are coming from a military outlook and we are asking them to be human beings in our cities while they are coming at it from an institutional mentality that is unsuited for the job. This is why we get into these situations where we are at war with ourselves! On a human level, if you take off the uniforms of everybody and put everybody around a big dinner table, the humanity is going to win out over the tribalism every time!

Identifying the inarticulate monster in you (BW205)

We think that we are evolved, but we still give an articulate voice to the inarticulate monster of our emotional worlds, the inarticulate beast that feels threatened or angry or excited or lustful or whatever those feelings are. We portrait that monster as an erudite, thoughtful and considered creature of the mind, and we are living in an in-between-state where we disavow it at our peril. We have been marching along the path of civilization, we have been calling ourselves the enlightened animal, and we have been turning our back and shunning the creature in us, but even until very recently we had institutionalized war-making. We were riding off to war on the backs of our gallant steeds with big giant feather plumes in our hats as way of saying that we are going to dress up war, which is the ugliest expression of the beast in us, and we are going to choreograph it and make it seem like it is part of the march of civilization.

Now we are in 2015 and we have back-slid a little bit. There is a lot less of that pomp and circumstance that we used to govern the beast. First we had casual Fridays and now it is casual Everydays. People are flying in airplanes with their pajamas and their flip flops on. A lot of the social mores that used to govern us and kept the beast at bay, even if they were completely false, were at least an attempt to say that there are rules. We don’t fly on airplanes in our pajamas! We don’t show the beast! That is how we mark the progress of civilization! But here we are, putting much more value on personal freedom! Why wouldn’t I fly in flip flops? It is more comfortable! Why wouldn’t I just do what I want because who are you Obama to tell me I can’t do what I want?

We are privileging the voice of personal freedom in our culture, but we are not reflecting on the fact that it is ultimately the voice of the beast. We imagine that Libertarianism is some kind of lofty philosophy about the privileging of personal freedom over all else. That angry animal in us can maybe only be dealt with on a leash, but we are sliding into a place where we are taking away the leash and the animal is rewarding us with a lot of ”You are not the boss of me!”-talk that is going to have disastrous consequences, and not just because everybody on airplanes is going to be in their freaking G-string. ”Why wouldn’t I wear a G-String? It is fucking more comfortable! It has got the Cowboys' logo on it! It is America’s team!”

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